ADS Word of the Year: fake news

On 5 January, the American Dialect Society chose fake news as its 2017 Word of the Year. The ADS defined fake news as either “disinformation or falsehoods presented as real news” or “actual news that is claimed to be untrue.” The phrase was considered during the organization’s deliberations for the 2016 Word of the Year (WOTY), but in that year it was being used only in the first of these two senses. Donald Trump began using it in the second sense in 2017, and it is this sense that catapulted it into the top spot. As far as I know, this is the first time a word has been considered in multiple years. (The ADS uses an expansive definition of word, that of “vocabulary item,” which includes phrases, hashtags, and the like.)

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2017 Words of the Year (WOTY)

As I did last year, and on occasion before that, I’ve come up with a list of words of the year. I do things a bit differently than other such lists in that I select twelve terms, one for each month. Since similar lists often exhibit a bias toward words that were in vogue at the end of the year when the list was compiled, my hope is that a monthly list will highlight words that were significant earlier in the year. The list is skewed by an American perspective, but since I’m American (and a Texan to boot), them’s the breaks.

I’m interpreting word loosely, including phrases, abbreviations, hashtags, and the like. The selected words are not necessarily new, but they are (mostly) associated with their respective month, either coming to widespread attention during it or associated with some event that happened then.

So, here are the 2017 Wordorigins.org Words of the Year:

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5 Ways to a Faster PhD

This article has absolutely nothing to do with etymology or language (except in the tangential way that it is about professional studies in the humanities), but it’s something I wrote about the problem of how long it takes to complete a PhD in the humanities.

It’s probably not of much interest to those outside academia.

And sorry about the click-baity headline; that was the editor’s idea, not mine.

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Emojis and the Law

Currently, my favorite podcast is Opening Arguments, in which interlocutors Andrew Torrez, a real-life lawyer, and Thomas Smith, not a lawyer, discuss topical legal questions.

While they typically stick to the law, in a recent episode they delved into the intersection of linguistics and the law. In the episode, the two hosts are joined by another lawyer, Denise Howell, to discuss how US law is treating the phenomenon of emojis. The discussion is quite good and free of the usual misconceptions about language that erupt when non-linguists take on the topic of language.

You can listen to it here.

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CMOS and the Singular They

The Chicago Manual of Style, one of the major academic style guides in the US, is inching their way toward acceptance of the singular they, that is the use of they to refer to a singular antecedent when the gender of the antecedent is unknown, generic, or non-binary. The University of Chicago Press is publishing the seventeenth edition of their widely used manual in September, and they’ve begun announcing what some of the changes will be, among them a shift toward using they for singular antecedents, but it is less han a full-throated acceptance.

CMOS 17 lays out two uses of the singular they. The first is using they to replace the generic he, that is the use of the masculine pronouns when the gender is unknown or generic. Use of he in this context is considered sexist by many and has fallen out of favor by most publishers and style guides, but agreement on what to replace it with has not been achieved until quite recently, when they started to gain rapid acceptance. CMOS 17 “accepts” the singular they in informal writing and “does not prohibit” its use in formal writing, although it recommends other strategies to avoid using it if possible.

This is a change from CMOS 16 (2010), which reads in section 5.222:

On the one hand, it is unacceptable to a great many reasonable readers to use the generic masculine pronoun (he in reference to no one in particular). On the other hand, it is unacceptable to a great many readers (often different readers) either to resort to nontraditional gimmicks to avoid the generic masculine (by using he/she or s/he, for example) or to use they as a kind of singular pronoun. Either way, credibility is lost with some readers.

CMOS 17 also advises editors to be flexible and take the book’s or article’s context into account when deciding what pronoun to use. It also says that the author’s wishes should be “always receive consideration.” In other words, unless there is a very good reason not to use it, editors using CMOS 17 shouldn’t dictate to their authors on whether or not to use the singular they in generic contexts.

The second use is a topic that went unaddressed in earlier editions of the manual, the use of they to refer to a specific person who does not identify as either male or female, someone who does not conform to the the traditional gender binary. For all contexts, formal and informal, CMOS 17 says that “a person’s stated preference for a specific pronoun should be respected.”

CMOS 17 says the singular they should take a plural verb, much like you does. (You was also originally a plural form, which took over from the singular thou.)

While its wording may not indicate it, this move toward accepting the singular they is a big shift. In practice, it means that most publishers who use CMOS will accept the singular they. By the time CMOS 18 hits the streets in another seven or so years, I predict that it will be a non-issue.

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